Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Deck The Halls

The evolution of the Christmas celebration as we know it has been a long and varied one. There are as many ideas of the meaning of celebrations at this time of year as there are people who celebrate. And this, the longest night of the year, is the perfect time to reflect on the bringing in of greenery, and the illumination of the darkest corners of our homes and hearts.

I love Christmas songs, particularly the old English ones like Deck the Halls and the Holly and the Ivy. I'm also a big fan of wassailing. So, as a gardener, one is curious as to what these plants and traditions mean. In ancient, pagan Europe and England, King Holly rules from MidSummer Night to MidWinter Night. King Oak ruled from MidWinter Night to MidSummer Night. Winter Solstice was the perfect time to celebrate these by bringing greenery in to remind us of life and growth. Holly boughs were brought into the homes, and Mistletoe, the parasitic plant growing in the Oak was also thought to have special qualities. Ivy was another evergreen plant in abundant supply in wintery northern climes.. The Holly was masculine, and the twining Ivy a feminine symbol.

Poinsettias, native to Mexico and Central America, were part of those Christmas celebrations long before it was introduced to America. Now, these fickle tropical plants, along with Paperwhites and Amaryllis are must have traditions as we force them into their showy displays at a time when they would normally be dormant.

My memories of decorations in my childhood always revolved around a Christmas tree. We also had a vintage nativity scene, a simple candelabra in the window, and of course, miles of paper chains. I was in my early twenties when I attended my first company Christmas party. It was held at the local town club. When I walked into this stately old club my first sight was an oak banister. They had decorated it by loosely twining fine grapevines around it. In the negative space created, there was gold tulle encasing white lights, angles blowing trumpets and doves.
I had never seen such an elegant and imaginative Christmas decoration. I was awestruck, and from that moment my thoughts of Christmas decorating shifted. I was no longer content with a tree. I longed for a banister to decorate. I've never gotten one, but I make due. The spandrel that divides our livingroom from the diningroom is the focal point, and other garlands are placed so as to compliment and balance the greenery throughout the house.

You can get quite showy with your greenery, but sometimes a simple boxwood wreath hung by a coordinating ribbon is adornment enough.

I enjoy the many color options that are offered for Poinsettias. This year I highlighted my graniteware collection with a creamy white one.

And where real greenery fails, there are many silk options to be had. I cut and combine floral picks and stick them into bare corners.

Over the sink, the usual vegetable prints are exchanged for botanical prints of seasonal plants, holly, winter pears, my favorite pomegranates, and the Colonial symbol of welcome, the pineapple. Silk bayleaf wreaths, which coordinate with the bayleaf garlands in other rooms, are hung on every pair of short cabinet doors.

Not even the bathroom is bare. The modern LED battery lights and candles make it possible for me to light up every nook and cranny.

Of course, the real thing is always best. My mother makes dozens of wreaths to give as gifts with sprigs of holly and rose hips tucked in. People look forward to this gift all year long and she enjoys shopping for ornaments to personalise each wreath to the person's decor or personality.

One year a friend of mine in Maine gifted me with a box of trimmings from her own yard. I used a centerpiece form purchased through the Colonial Williamsburg catalog to construct this centerpiece. When the pears become over ripe, just replace them with ornaments.
Colonial Williamsburg is a great source of inspiration for decorating with greenery and fruit. I page through their galleries each year looking for inspiration. In fact, it was Colonial Williamsburg which first popularised Candles in the Windows back in the 1940s. That is a look I've always enjoyed. It's amazing how elegant and festive the right sort of facade can look with careful placement of single candles.
Other sources of decorating are the idea galleries at Better Homes and Gardens and Martha Stewart.
White Flower Farms sell wonderful garlands. Sometimes I will buy one, cut an end off to use in arrangements, and hang the shortened garland for decoration. They also sell boxes of mixed greens if you have a hard time finding a local source. Williams Sonoma is another excellent source.
If you want silk greenery that you can use year after year, there are now many catalogs which supply excellent quality decorations. My favorites are Front Gate, Grandin Road, Ballard Designs, and Horchow Home.
One of my gardening projects for next summer is to plant evergreens for the express purpose of trimming for holiday centerpieces and garlands. We have a planting bed ready, and next spring I will be shopping for my own holly and ivy, and probably some box wood and other evergreens so stay tuned.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Some Things are More Trouble Than They're Worth...

There are certain things that seem like a wonderful idea at the time, but in reality, are just more trouble than they're worth. You can either buy the finished product for much less than you can make it yourself, OR you are better off just admiring a picture of it. Please remind me of this moment of clarity if I ever show signs of doing the following:

Trying to grow my own Sweet Corn, Pumpkins or Watermelon.
Canning Tomatoes or making Sauce.
Planting more than two Zucchini plants at a time.
Baking cutout Christmas cookies.

I keep a list of cookie recipes that I've mastered, and I also keep a list of failures to never try ever again. Inevitably, every few years, my memory grows dim, and a photo like this in a catalog...

...will catch my eye. I will immediately send away for the cookie cutters. I will clip the photo for inspiration. And I will take several years off my life trying to achieve similar results.

And for what? To try to impress my mother, husband, extended family, friends and coworkers with my baking prowess when I present them with a picture perfect box of Holiday delights? Trust me, there is no baking prowess. My mother is already impressed with me, due in no small part to her claim on giving birth to me. My husband barely tolerates my flights of Holiday fancy as it is, and my coworkers know they must pretend to be impressed or suffer a 40 hour work week of bad (worse) temper. My friends would probably think me pretentious and talk amongst themselves while I'm occupied with my cutout cookies.

Alternatively, there are several recipes that are a lot less trouble than they appear.
Split Seconds, for instance, have a bit of a learning curve, but are remarkably easy, and they look so festive. Especially if you drizzle white icing over the finished cookies. I use cherry jelly instead of raspberry jam, and I apply it with a cookie decorator.

Hershey's Peanut Butter Blossoms. This dough is SO easy to work with. Very forgiving. But, if it looks like you are going to get more than 4 dozen out of the batch (I got 5) be sure to unwrap the extra kisses BEFORE you pop the last sheet in the oven! Time is of essence!

Pecan Turtles. A regional candy favorite. Add two tablespoons or heavy cream instead of water to your caramels. Very easy to make, not as messy as they sound and heavenly to eat.

Now, as for those cut out sugar cookies... I still have several refrigerated dough logs to work through. I think the wise choice would be to get out the snowman cookie cutter and apply the frosting with a broad knife.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Top 5 Things on My Holiday Shopping List

Now I won't bore you with the details of my shopping list, but here are the top 5 things to have on hand throughout the Holidays.
1. Taste of Home Best Holiday Recipes or similar inspirational publication. Published annually, this magazine has great photos, fresh ideas and simple instructions. This is where I generally get my inspiration for my new recipes.
2. Gladware. You will always need some. Great for storing cookies in the freezer and sending guest home with leftovers. I always stock up this time of year.

3. Cookies. Whether you bake them yourself or buy them at the bakery, keep a few containers of cookies in the freezer. When surprise guests drop by, bring out a plate to thaw and by the time your guests have settled in they will be ready to serve. Of course, not all cookies thaw on a moment's notice, so choose wisely. I have two different kinds of cookies in the freezer so far, with five more planned. You don't even have to get fancy. Make some Toll House cookies with red and green M&Ms instead of chocolate chips or buy Pillsbury cookie dough to make cut outs and have fun just decorating them.

4. Paper Plates and Napkins. Takes the work and hassle out of cleaning up. We even serve Thanksgiving or Christmas Dinner on themed paper plates. After all the work you did in the kitchen, make cleanup a breeze by using disposable Holiday themed plates. I stock up when they go on sale at the end of the holidays, and use the odd and ends to give away cookies.
5. Poinsettias. Need a centerpiece? Need a last minute hostess gift? Flat out forgot to decorate? Poinsettias are the solution to your problem. Large or small, traditional red or subtle salmon, there is a poinsettia for every occasion. But unless you are good with house plants (I'm not) don't buy them too early or the lower leaves will begin to fall off. Grab one a week at the store and you will always have a fresh one, and the older ones can be pushed to the background to provide a back drop.

A few simple preparations are all it takes to make your Holidays run smoothly.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

End of Season Arts and Crafts

My mother came up with the most original use of garden scraps yet! Earlier this summer, she cut the stem end off an onion, and for some reason, set it aside on the window sill. A week or so later, she looked at it again and was struck by how closely it resembled a flower.

She spent the rest of the summer saving her onion ends, and hot glued them to a grapevine wreath form. Using white, yellow and red onions, she achieved a wide palette of color.

This was not the end of her creativity. She also gathered up dried artichokes from last year, and some "mummified" turnips that she pulled out of the garden after leaving them in the ground all winter. This wreath is now gracing the inside of my garden shed, as it obviously would not do well out in the elements.

I am finally getting to some of my own decorating projects. Today I made roller shades using this fun fabric I bought on Ebay... well over a year ago! By next spring the garden shed ought to be cutely decorated.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Tis the Season

Thanksgiving is fast approaching. This is the time for all gardeners and homemakers to shine. So you might wonder what I am making this year. And the answer is..... Reservations!

Yes folks, the Holidays are a stressful time. If you really want to enjoy them, you must pace yourself. I have done the big Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey, the sweet potatoes, the wonderful apple cranberry relish. I have even baked a few pies in my day. There have been long grocery lists, mounds of leftovers and huge piles of dishes. Every few years, someone in my family up and decides they want to put themselves through that. And in between, we make reservations.

What?!? No turkey leftovers? No pie? I assure you there will be pie. We will most likely spend the afternoon house hopping and sampling everyone's pies. But I solve the turkey leftover problem by buying breast only turkey, and cooking that for Sunday dinner now and then. It helps with that turkey leftover craving. Two people+one large turkey breast=sandwiches all week.

But there ARE things to be done. Now begins my "using up of my vacation" plan where I take every Friday off giving me time for holiday projects. Today's project was cleaning the fridge, and I don't mean just wiping the shelves. I get out the graniteware slop pot and take after the canned goods. Anything that has been in there since last Christmas has to go, along with stuff we really aren't going to eat after all. Must make room! Then, one shelf at a time, I scrub. I have a shelf soaking in the sink this minute. Not sure what is stuck to it, but it isn't edible. Our house will be full of impromptu guests for the next two months, and it is bad form to send someone to your fridge to get themselves a mixer and have your fridge either avalanche on them or growl at them.

And I've already been up early and too the grocery store. I have things on the side porch where it's cool, and they need to be organised into the freshly cleaned fridge. I keep a list on the computer each year, and as the sales and coupons start rolling in, I begin stocking up. I have enough crackers, cheeses, olives and such to throw together a little party platter at a moment's notice. They also had a good price on spiral cut hams, so the Christmas ham is already here. You also never know when you might need a can of broth, and it is a good time to refresh your baking supplies.

My list not only shows ideas of what to serve for a "Happy Hour" party vs a family open house, different people's drink preferences (so I know when to make sure I have OJ handy) and ingredients for special dips, but I also keep a list of failures. My family is tired of bread dip and stuffed mushrooms. Each year I try to introduce one new recipe. If they don't finish something one year, they don't get it again for at least three years.

Tim is a bit of a "social director". He feels the need to plan and invite and people have happily let him take that over. And if he is social directing, then I am cooking. About 7 years ago I told him if I never put together another relish tray as long as I lived, it would be too soon. So I have also learned to order out for things like that. It's on my to-do list. but right now, I have to go put my fridge back together and clean myself up because the rest of this day off is for relaxation. That is what the Holidays are about isn't it?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Preparing for spring

Now is the time to be planting spring bulbs, so we can look forward to those bright harbingers of warmer weather. I have a unique bulb planting style. I like to "naturalise" by planting clumps of daffodils along edges and corners. I have very little patience for this, so I've developed a rather abrupt planting style. Those of you who know me in person will probably not be suprised by the word "abrupt".
I choose a grey, rainy day in November, when the ground is saturated and sloppy. I don my waxed, oil skin coat, and my knee high green shitkickers. And I go get the crowbar. Yes, the crowbar. No fussy, measured bulb dibber for me. Then I stalk around the yard jamming the crowbar into the earth like a stake into a vampire. Once it is in good and deep, I rotate it in a circle widening the hole until it is big enough to stuff a bulb down. When the bulb has been stuffed, I close the hole with my heel and move on.
I am a little more studied about planting in the landscape beds. Above is an old photo of some tulips. My favorites are the orangish "Daybreak" tulips. They first blossom orange, then fade to yellow. Home Depot carried them this year. Otherwise they can be a little hard to find. In the bes, I dig a sizeable hole, and throw a bunch of bulbs in. Bulbs really aren't fussy. You can set them in neatly, but even if you put them in upside down, they will sort things out.

This year I added clumps of daffodils to a new border along the back of the garden you have not yet seen. I put in a few splotches of color in the front beds with hyacinths surrounded by crocuses. And above are some paperwhites I was given last Christmas. As you can see, they've rooted well and are thinking about putting up some leaves.

I also planted garlic. I don't know why. I rarely use garlic. I will NEVER use a dozen garlic bulbs. But I planted them anyway, and they have come up nicely.

There are still a few things outside to be tended to. The catnip is almost dry enough to crumble off and be sewn into fabric scrap bags for kitty toys.

Here are the sunflower heads we harvested. I allowed them to dry for several weeks, making sure to keep them covered with bird netting, then removed the seeds for roasting. In doing so, I ruined all my fingernails.
To roast sunflower seeds, boil them in salt water for an hour, then season them and roast them in a moderate oven (350*). You can find several sets of instruction on the internet as to the correct salt to water ratio. I made several flavors, using a light coating of olive oil to stick the seasoning. I used taco seasoning, ranch dressing mix, onion soup mix, and a plain batch with just some salt. The instructions I found on the internet all said to roast for half an hour, but I ended up doing each batch for an hour and a half before Tim was satisfied with the crunchiness.
I don't care for them. If the hulls were removed, maybe, but it was hard enough to get the flower bits off them, much less the hulls. Next roasting project is pumpkin seeds. Those are a bit easier as they don't require boiling.

And I am still enjoying lettuce. This is what is growing under my row cover despite two significant snow falls and a whole week of frosty mornings.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pear Cordial

One of my favorite magazines is Hobby Farm Home. Maybe I ought to do a blog on the best gardening magazines. Anyway, Hobby Farm and Hobby Farm Home are the only two magazines I subscribe to. There are two other good ones, I'm considering since I almost always end up bringing each issue home. Anyway, in the November/December 2011 Hobby Farm Home, an article caught my eye. It is called "You're Cordially Invited" and it gives recipes for several fruit cordials.

Thanks to our new Governor, the 40 year law banning the sale of 190 proof grain alcohol in New York State has been lifted, and I no longer have to scrounge far and wide for Moonshine and grain alcohol. I can buy it at our local liquor store! So a new recipe piqued my interest. I made a copy of the Raspberry Cordial recipe for my step mother who was harvesting dozens of quarts of raspberries throughout the summer. The one that got me excited was Pear Cordial.

My mother has four pear trees, and for several years, they have produced bushels and bushels of pears. We have run out of pear ideas. Mom even went so far as to make pear pie, which, to quote my sister, "tastes like apple pie with something wrong with it.'

My favorite pear is the Bosc Pear which is a brown pear, with a rough, almost sand papery skin. It is tasty even when under-ripe. We eat a lot of them.

She also has a winter pear called Keiffer which takes a little more patience, but when you get it at the exact right ripeness, it is very good as well.

Making pear cordial is very easy. You will need 6 perfectly ripe pears, a gallon jar, some sugar, some high test alcohol, and some patience.
First you bring 3 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water to a boil, stir until dissolved, and let it cool to room temperature. Then you peel and slice 6 pears. Plop the pears in the jar, pour the syrup over them, add 1 tsp of lemon zest, and 2 cups of vodka. The article says if you are working with 190 proof grain alcohol, you should dilute it with an equal amount of water. Pffttt... as IF!
You put the jar in a cool dark place for 4 weeks, visiting it every couple of days to slosh it around. At the end of the four weeks, you strain out the pears through cheese cloth. It makes about 6 cups.

What you are left with is a deep chestnut liquid that looks remarkably like cider. The aroma is fruity. At first it was a little sharp, with the lemon zest taking over a bit. You are suppose to let it age 6 months, and in a week I already notice a difference as the flavors blend and mellow. I've been sampling it now and then by just dipping a spoon into it. It is very smooth, with a delicate pear flavor. Then you realise it packs a bit of a punch as it hits your palate. I think it will be good over ice. I wonder what it would be like served hot like Glögg?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

In Which the Loader Becomes a Utility Sink

My least favorite fall gardening ritual is the washing up. You pick a warm sunny day long after the garden has been put to bed, when you would much rather be sitting in a lawn chair with a beer enjoying the blue sky, and you do your best to disinfect everything with bleach water to minimise the carry over of bacterial disease from one season to the next.

Tim's large tractor loader is the perfect sink. The height is adjustable, and it holds lots of pots.

In fact, it is the ONLY thing that will hold water and the tomato ladders. I knock the dirt off everything, give it a pre-rinse, and set in the bleach solution to soak for as long as my patience holds out. About 10-15 minutes. The whole procedure takes two and a half hours. It's also a good time to sort through pots, throw out damaged ones, and take an inventory. Don't forget to disinfect anything else you will be using again including, permanent plant markers, grow through supports, reusable tomato ties and tools. I also send my gloves to the laundry, wipe down my kneelers and take a moment to sweep out and wipe down the insides of my cabinets.

Before it is over, pots and flats are spread all over the drive drying in the sun.

The garden is put to bed, the shed is organised, the leaves are mulched.

A clean slate for next season.
But I'm still into stuff. As a teaser, I can tell you that my arm is sticking to the desk right now from the syrupy sweetness of my latest anti-fruit wastage, make work program, and my fingers are sore from cracking pecan shells.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Why do we do this?

So, in contemplating the resting of the garden in 2012, Tim and I have had a few discussions regarding the purpose of gardening. First of all, it is NOT cost effective. As a whole that is. Granted, you can grow a shit load of green beans from a couple dollars of seed with virtually no other work or worry. But, you can still get Prego s'ghetti sauce from the grocery for a LOT less time and money than you can make your own. And I like Prego. Hasn't killed me yet. I think the tipping point for me was the last weekend I spent dealing with the harvest. I was on my feet all weekend, in and out of the kitchen, keeping an eye on things, countless sinks full of dishes, multiple trips to the compost bin. On Sunday evening I had a quart of tomato sauce, a gallon of frozen beans, and an apple pie. My thought was ~ "the weekend is over, I'm tired, I could have gotten this at the store for under 20 bucks." Doubt began to creep in....

Most of the money we spend gardening is for our own fun. Honestly. And if you like to contemplate the folly of spending copious amount of money on a handful of food, order the book the $64 Tomato and enjoy. So, we spend a lot of cash making ourselves happy in the garden, and another driving force, is the innate and inescapable hunter/gatherer in all of us. Case in point: this year's apple harvest.

My mother went on to gather dozens of bushels more from my orchard and any other orchard in the county that she could gain access to. 60 bushels was the official count, but I don't think she kept very good records. With her daily roamings of the orchard, there are still bushels of apples sitting on her front porch.

She referred to this hoarding as a "temporary obsession to eliminate fruit wastage". But I assure you it is not temporary. To my knowledge, it covers at least three generations and will reoccur annually for months at a time like snow. It's novel at first, but then it consumes everything, and makes getting around inconvenient. In the throes of her fruit obsession, my mother is even driven to call my father, her ex husband, and demand he come and get some pears/apples/whateverwehavebushelsof. And he unloads his unwanted raspberry runners on her. We have come to call this the "fruit exchange". Let the fruiting begin.

The "Mother Load" of Pippins on it's way to the mill
Part of this obsession is driven by location. This would be a lot harder to do if we lived in, say, New York City. In that case, we would most likely gather and hoard street trash instead (and I'm not saying we haven't). We have this stuff just laying around, for one reason or another, and if we don't pick it up, someone is going to have to mow around it.

And because my mother just happens to live half a mile from my orchard to the west, and half a mile from an old fashioned cider mill to the east, the logical thing to do would be to pick up the apples and turn them into cider to give to everybody. And this can be fun. Especially when the cider goes hard. The weeks I spent drinking the gallons I brought to the office were especially pleasant. Particularly after the caps blew off.

My mother was aided and abetted in her "temporary obsession to avoid fruit wastage" by Elsie the Amishwoman. Elsie is a thrifty, hard working woman who will can anything that she can get her hands on. I have given her jars of jelly and such and I can tell you, Elsie returns the jars in the best way possible... full of something else.

Elsie's Larder Part I

Elsie's Larder Part II

My husband has reminded me that we are not Amish. It is not necessary for us to grow our own food. Heck, we're not even farmers. Well, I'm sort of a farmer, but he's not. And we're not Survivalists. If there is a cataclysm, we will not be repopulating the Earth. If the Global Economy collapses, we can survive off the grid pretty easily. I do have some turnip and rutabaga seeds lying around. We're not going to starve right away.

In the mean time, we garden for pleasure. We know that fresh green beans are far superior to the canned ones. It's fun to grow catnip and other herbs. Digging potatoes is oddly satisfying. There are certain specialties, like Wild Plum Jelly, homemade Pickles and Glögg that can only come from your own kitchen and are delightful to share as gifts. Those are the things that we do not fret over the cost and work of making. We garden so we can feel the satisfaction of nurturing a seedling, amending the soil and reveling in the unique taste of a fresh, sun warmed tomato from seeds saved for generations. As long as we can keep that perspective, we will garden on.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Iceberg Lettuce

The only thing left in the garden now is the lettuce and a few young carrots. And tonight I picked my dinner salad out of the snow. At this point in the year, I am taking the whole plant and thinning out anything that will not be covered under my row cover to protect it from snow and frost.

What could be better than fresh, chilled, tender buttercrunch lettuce?

The garden is put to bed for the winter. The soil is amended with compost, the catnip is drying in the chicken coop, the sunflower seeds have been roasted, the chard has been frozen to be clipped for soups and sauces, and the carrots have been pulled and put up. A clean slate for the next year.

But, be forewarned, I have a pretty long list of things around the house that did NOT get done because of gardening and food storage. My six beds will be resting next year while we catch up.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

And still...

...with the beans.
Yesterday was October 1st and I was freezing beans. And my fingers, it just so happens, as I picked in a 45* rain. Will it never end?
The only things left in the garden, are two green tomatoes, half a dozen bell peppers, and the plants that need to be pulled. And maybe a summer squash. And some chard and carrots. And, of course, the lettuce. You're right. This is never going to end.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Fall Gardening

Yes, I still have things growing. The temperatures have been below normal, and they even used the "S" word for this weekend's forecast. But there is still activity in the garden.

I am enjoying the fall planting of lettuce in the bed which held the first planting of cucumbers and bush beans. There are three short rows of carrots on the far end.

Tim and Neighbor Mike constructed an extra hoop house that fits over the lettuce. The cloth will give me frost protection down to 26*. Next summer I can replace the cloth for shade cloth and keep the lettuce cooler hoping to delay the bolting. I cut this cloth out of a larger sheet, hemmed the edges, and added gromets to fasten it to the frame.

There are still seedlings coming up and this bed will soon be a lettuce jungle.

The Nasturtium, which stops blooming in the heat of summer, always rallies and offers billows of bright fall color.

In the "paste tomato" bed, the only thing left is the Sungold which is being nursed along to provide salad tomatoes.

The third planting of bush beans is still lush. It produced a couple of gallons of beans to freeze, and now is keeping us in dinner beans. Now and then it gets ahead of me and I have to freeze a small batch. The Purple Queen beans are reverting to their pole bean ancesters and taking over the remaining cornstalks.

The "slicing tomato" bed still has some tenants, but they will be pulled this weekend. The bell peppers on the far side are going strong and I will have to freeze some.

The Serrano pepper looks very festive. We are going to try drying these.

The chard looks gorgeous!

But this is one ugly summer squash. The growing end keeps generating new growth as the old leaves die off leaving an ugly snaking stalk. I keep having to wind it around and back into the bed. Thre are still a few small squash coming on.

Plan for this weekend is winterization. I've done my "ungardening" gradually instead of all in one day. It feels like less work that way. But soon we will be battling leaves and anything left in the beds will just be an obstacle. The compost bin is full, but there is still work to be done to get everything cut down and protected, and the equipment clean, disinfected and ready for a smooth start in the spring.